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Austin Alexis

DIS MEM BER and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense
by Joyce Carol Oates
The Mysterious Press      New York City      $15. 2017

DIS MEM BER and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense, a new collection of seven short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, depicts women who confront disturbing truths about themselves after enduring disturbing and even gothic experiences. The collection shows a movement from realistic stories at the start of the book to powerfully surreal fictions at the end. Though most of the works dramatize female protagonists, the male characters, also, are brought vividly to life by Oates’s lush prose and deft use of irony, symbolism, foreshadowing, suspense and her characters’ subconscious thoughts.

The collection’s second story, “The Crawl Space,” gives one of the clearest examples in the book of a character encountering a truth she needs to grasp by way of a horrific experience. The story’s main character is a widow who is obsessed with the house in which she and her late husband used to live. At the point in the narrative when she is entombed in the house’s eponymous crawl space, she finds a disfigured, disintegrated doll or mummy that is surely symbolic of her inability to move on after her husband’s death. The story is particularly poignant in light of knowledge that Oates suffered paralyzing grief after the death of her husband, the professor and editor Raymond Smith, in 2008. 2 The first story is the title story: “DIS MEME BER.” Here, Oates studies a sometimes abusive “friendship” between an eighth-grade girl and her step cousin. “Step” relatives figure prominently in the later story “Heartbreak,” as well. Jill-y, the girl, who is the story’s first-person narrator, takes rides with this cousin in his “sky-blue Chevy” to secret places. “You tell anybody else and you’ll never get taken for a ride in my Chevy again,” the cousin tells her. The rural setting is painstakingly rendered as the two characters visit a creek where a butchered body sprawls and stop at obscure dirt roads where the older male cousin behaves threateningly toward Jill-y. The readers’ fear for Jill-y’s safety accounts for the suspenseful edge the story exerts. The surprise ending is effective; few readers would guess it ahead of time, and even knowing the ending beforehand won’t dampen the enjoyment of being immersed in Oates’s brilliant specificity of character, relationship, setting, and community. The piece ends as it begins, on the roof of the farmhouse owned by Jill-y’s parents; the story’s circular structure reinforces a sense of closure.

“Heartbreak” follows the familiar adage: if there’s a gun in act one, it should go off by the last act. Eschewing a surprise ending, “Heartbreak” draws the reader in with its heartrending depiction of teenage angst. The main character experiences her parents’ break-up, intense jealousy of her older sister, and an unrequited romantic crush on the nephew of her step father. (Her mother has remarried.) Just as the off-page violence at the end of “DIS MEM BER” results in Jill-y seeing her step cousin in a new way, the on-page violence at the climax of “Heartbreak” causes the teen narrator to grasp unsettling truths about her own propensities.

“The Drowned Girl” is based on a true story that was reported in newspapers several years ago. Ironically, as the story’s main character worries about the cruelty exerted on the “drowned girl,” she herself is mistreated by faculty and dorm staff at the university where the murder took place. The protagonist here is obsessed with a girl who was drowned at the dormitory of the college the 3 protagonist attends. The incident happened before the protagonist enrolls at the college. As in “The Crawl Space,” Oates explores her vision of the human psyche stuck in a groove, prone to fixation. Sometimes the characters seem unconscious of just how bizarre their compulsive actions (and words) are and how off-kilter their infatuated behavior appears to others. It’s worth noting the characters’ obsessions spring out of compassion and love.

“The Situation” displays Oates ability to portray evil, as a father is depicted killing his children’s kittens and later physically abusing his kids. Toward the end, Oates shows how this “Daddy” thinks his behavior imparts needed lessons. As an author, she knows that even antagonists have good sides, or at least a way of justifying their actions in their own eyes.

The seventy-four page story “Great Blue Heron” contains some of Oates’s most poetic and inspired prose as it paints a picture of a suburban area that surrounds a lake. The lake is a gathering place for a host of birds: loons, geese, mallards and others. The main character is another widow, and as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the blue heron of the title embodies the power, speed, confidence and ability to defend itself (complete with sharp claws and a stabbing beak) that this widow needs as she faces an obnoxious, possibly predatory brother-in-law and violent neighborhood teens. “Has the widow become an object of fear? An object of terror?” the narrator asks fairly early in the tale, prefiguring the woman’s morphing into a “plunging,” “lethal” creature.

The book’s final story, “Welcome to the Friendly Skies!” is atypical of the collection: instead of one female protagonist, a group of bird-watchers about to take a plane flight is pitted against an airline crew preaching macabre regulations. Though these rules are supposed to protect the passengers, many of the instructions the airline insists on will cause either harm or death to the bird-watchers. The tale exudes a harshly jocular ambience, like some of the musical compositions penned by Igor Stravinsky in the 1920s. The story is a tongue-in-check rendering of the modern world’s labyrinth of directives. Its 4 humor is unlike the tone of the rest of the stories, but the nightmarish sensibility is in keeping with Oates’s keen sense of humankind’s vulnerability and the need to protect ourselves against both outer and inner threats.